The Venezuelan Crisis Needs a Real Mediator … Not Sean Penn

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By Ruth Melkonian-Hoover

March 21, 2014

Most of us have followed the troubling news coming from Venezuela: the first year of Maduro’s presidency is ending with student protests and violent government overreaction, resulting in over a dozen deaths and hundreds wounded. Sean Penn, an (in)famous celebrity ally of the socialist government, has said little about the recent turn of events; he was, however, asked by Maduro to use his keen diplomatic skills to serve as a spokesperson to the United States. Sean Penn’s ex-wife Madonna, though often politically in line with Penn, broke with Penn in a recent highly re-tweeted message, noting, “Apparently Maduro is not familiar with the phrase ‘Human Rights’! Fascism is alive and thriving in Venezuela and Russia.  . . .”

Since early February, university students in Venezuela, stirred up by certain factions of the opposition, have been staging protests and blocking streets. These protestors have been met with water cannons, attacks by paramilitaries/colectivos, arrests, and even torture. Feeling the strain of few institutional channels for redress, tens of thousands have become involved in the protest movement. Incensed by Venezuela’s high crime rate, the scarcity of basic goods, an inflation rate of over 50 percent, and repression of political liberty, the movement is flatly demanding Maduro’s resignation. Maduro’s party has preferential access to power through concentrated/corrupted media coverage and campaign financing. Numerous media outlets have been shut down (or threatened with such), and no electoral means of change are available until 2015’s legislative elections. Last spring, the opposition lost the presidential election by a slim margin (under 2 percent), and lost local elections this December by 10 percent. A presidential recall cannot be attempted constitutionally until 2016, the midpoint of the presidential term.

Henrique Capriles, the opposition presidential candidate who lost to Maduro, did not join the protests until recently; he desires peaceful protests and the expansion of the middle class base of the movement. On March 8, International Women’s Day, he helped organize middle class women in a pot-banging protest, a classic form of protest in Latin America bringing attention to the difficulty of feeding one’s family. Capriles has not advocated for Maduro’s exit per se, but for an alternative means of change with calls for a constituent assembly. 

Maduro has responded with counter protests, using the anniversary of Chávez’s death to proclaim that he is best suited to carry the mantle of Bolivarian socialism on behalf of Venezuela’s poor. While Maduro charges “fascist” opposition leaders with fomenting unrest and a possible coup, he says he has made offers for dialogue, but they’ve all been rejected. Outside of Sean Penn, Maduro has vetoed calls for international intermediaries in the dispute, which is somewhat ironic given Venezuela’s reputation for freely meddling in the politics of its satellite nations.

Regionally, the Latin American response to the Venezuelan situation has been rather tepid among sitting Latin American presidents. By contrast, some former presidents such as Oscar Arias of Costa Rica and Fernando Cardoso of Brazil have been more forthright in their critique of the Venezuelan government’s response.

Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli did lead the OAS (Organization of American States) to consider a solution to the crisis, but the OAS simply passed a resolution in support of the Venezuelan government. Maduro then promptly expelled Panama’s ambassador and three diplomats from Venezuela. Earlier, Maduro had already expelled three US diplomats, blaming them as well for fomenting unrest.

President Obama has said that the Venezuelan government ought to deal with the legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people and should release protestors and enter into genuine dialogue. Senator Marco Rubio has gone further, trying to get the Senate to call for sanctions and pushing for OAS-mediated talks. Globally, Pope Francis has appealed to both sides to “promote reconciliation through mutual forgiveness and dialogue,” and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called for the government to “listen carefully to the aspirations” of the protestors.

Although Maduro rejects the need for intermediaries, protestors will not likely meet without their inclusion. While this symbolic protest activity has brought attention to an untenable status quo, it is unlikely to launch significant viable change. Ultimately, institutional means of reform are the only sustainable option. Maduro needs his Latin American allies within UNASUR (Union of South America) and elsewhere to encourage him to come to the table in a way that truly invites his opposition to dialogue, perhaps mediated by a Latin American pope, or a mutually respected Latin American organization. Continued unrest does not serve Venezuela’s interests, or that of its allies and trade partners. Skillful, knowledgeable, and morally legitimate political mediation is what’s needed now—not ideological rants and Sean Penn posturing.

- Ruth Melkonian-Hoover is Chair and Associate Professor of the Department of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.